Leadership Butterfly Effect: A tactic to vastly improve teamwork

There is a concept in chaos theory called the butterfly effect where a butterfly flapping its wings conceivably causes a hurricane weeks later in a different location. It’s a bit unsettling, and it makes me wonder what other seemingly small event can cause a large apparently incongruous result.

For example, what little things do leaders do that greatly affect teamwork on their teams? Does the fact that the CEO drinks coffee from a BIG BOSS mug and pounds her desk with abnormally large fists while smoking a cigar and yelling at subordinates for their inadequacies perpetuate a culture of fear, which causes people to hide their weaknesses, which causes a political environment, which results in lost productivity, and people having personal animosity towards each other?

Does she realize this as her unusually large fists hammer the mahogany?

Call it the leadership butterfly effect.

If this is true, why can’t the opposite be true? What seemingly small things can a leader do that will affect teamwork in a disproportionately positive way? Here’s an idea:

What if a leader starts to be publicly and explicitly open about both praising AND constructively criticizing both themselves and everyone else? Call it Symmetrical Reality in that everyone is responsible for delivering a good dose of reality, both positive and negative, to all peers and teammates.

What’s the butterfly effect of that?

At first it’s probably a shock to the team because it seems like people either gravitate towards public criticism and no praise, or public praise and no criticism. The team may have to go through a metamorphosis to fully absorb this way of working.

Metamorphosis makes me think of butterflies. Can the butterfly effect of a leader using symmetrical reality cause a different kind of butterfly effect? A team metamorphosis?

When a team of high performers first starts working together, they are unsure of each other. It’s like a teamwork larva, crawling around, with the potential to change into something better. If the leader makes the wrong move, and starts desk pounding, over-egoing, and hiding behind insecurities, the teamwork will never progress beyond the larva stage.

However, if the leader starts by implementing the praise in public, criticize in private methodology, the teamwork will start to transform. The leader will have to work with her team so it’s not just her doing the praising, but it’s everyone praising each other for their successes. This helps build relationships, and the team will grow more comfortable with each other.

This is the cocoon stage as the entire team becomes wrapped in a silky chrysalis of positivity. The team has progressed, but the teamwork transformation is not yet complete. Business is difficult and hard issues must be worked through openly as a team. Open praise is great, but open praise and open constructive criticism is even better.

Once relationships are built and the team atmosphere is solidified, the leader must complete the transformation by starting to offer up constructive public criticism when necessary under the general guideline that no one should take it personally and everyone will be praised and criticized as necessary to make sure the team is progressing to the best of everyone’s abilities.

As the entire team absorbs this way of working, they will emerge from their cocoon as a full blown teamwork butterfly, a most beautiful creature. The team will have such strong peer relationships that they will be able to openly discuss what each other does well and what they need to improve upon, in good faith, without people constantly trying to triangulate and deflect criticism elsewhere. They will debate these points and all actively work to get better. They will be a constantly evolving, self critical, self improving machine. This is symmetrical reality, teamwork in its ultimate form. It’s the teamwork butterfly.

The butterfly effect is a weird concept, and I generally don’t like chaos. However, I do believe that seemingly small changes in leadership can have big results. So, to put it in terms of chaos theory: a small change in the initial leadership conditions can cause a full team metamorphosis. Or, in other words, a butterfly effect can cause a butterfly metamorphosis.

Let’s call that the double butterfly effect. It’s a mind bender.


Bite-size Vision: How great leaders spur progress

The novice visionary points skyward to an uncharted planet that pulses with untapped potential. “This is where we’ll go!” he declares to his motley team of travelers.

The team says, “But nobody’s ever gone there before. It’s uncharted. It’s too difficult. We don’t have the supplies…the skills…the knowledge….the technology.”

“You’ll figure it out! You are a great team. You’re smart!” says the novice visionary.

So the team tries to figure it out while the novice visionary talks incessantly about the great possibilities of this untapped planet. “There are probably precious metals there. There’s probably an alien species we can befriend. There are probably technologies we can use, great cuisine to eat, and knowledge beyond our wildest dreams. I’ll write a book. We’ll do a movie. It’ll be great.”

A month later he goes back to his team to review their progress. There are problems.

The chief engineer was supposed to research propulsion mechanisms, but his computer hard drive crashed, so he was reading Popular Mechanics and waiting for the IT department.

The crew chief and the HR person were in a detailed argument about food supplies. The crew chief was insisting they could survive on only freeze-dried ice cream. He had eaten it at the Air and Space Museum and loved it. Plus it was light and cheap. The HR person was adamantly against it, and was advocating a two year research project to create renewable food sources.

The director of marketing was supposed to be building a web presence, but due to the lack of timeframe and details, he simply created a website that declared, “Amazing planet exploration project: Coming soon!” Then he spent the rest of his time researching keywords to improve SEO. “Does ‘amazing planet exploration’ rank higher than ‘unprecedented otherworldly voyage’? I’ll do some more A/B testing.”

The accountant had absolutely nothing to do, since there was no revenue yet from this venture, so she was spawning endless financial models that showed anything from a four hundred million dollar loss to a 1.2 billion dollar profit.

The novice visionary was both angry and discouraged. “You are all smart people, how come we can’t make more progress than this? Remember my big vision?”

The team was silent for a minute and then the finger pointing started. The chief engineer was all excuses. The crew chief was blathering about freeze dried ice cream. The marketing person was talking about PageRank, and the accountant said, “…but I forwarded you like ten spreadsheets.”

The novice visionary stormed out and decided he needed some help. He went to his uncle who was a leader and an astronaut and had traveled to several moons. His uncle gave him these words of wisdom:

“Nephew, you are a visionary and you’ve got great ideas. That planet looks like it has awesome potential. But being a visionary is not enough. You must also be a leader. And a leader doesn’t just talk incessantly about the endpoint. A leader methodically shepherds a team through all the steps. You are always talking about point Z, but you are starting at point A. You must lead the team through points B, C, D, and so on. Here’s how:

  • You have the big vision. Break it down into bite-sized visions for each step of the way.
  • Relax your focus on point Z and rally the team around point B, then C, then D.
  • Paint the vision for each step, but periodically relate it back to the bigger vision.
  • Cut out the noise that doesn’t matter yet. For example, don’t worry about freeze-dried ice cream if you don’t have propulsion.
  • Identify, clarify, and elevate the important details of each step so the team focuses attention there.
  • Avoid micro-managing all details, but ensure that these important detail are adequately dealt with by the team.
  • Make sure the communication is frequent and open.
  • Constantly address naysayers and skeptics, but thoroughly absorb their feedback.
  • Learn from each step and alter your big vision.
  • Rinse and repeat as you go through steps A, B, and C, etc.”

The novice visionary realized his uncle was right. A visionary proclaims possibilities, but a great leader does the heavy lifting to get a team to a new planet. A great leader sees the vision, but understands enough of the details and ensures the team is executing on each step. A leader follows up, removes roadblocks, and spurs progress.

After some self reflection, the novice visionary focused and transformed himself from a doe-eyed dreamer to a visionary AND practical leader who understands how to build a profitable business.

In the end, his team never made it to that planet, but they did something better. Along the way they found profitable success selling unique propulsion systems here on earth.

Also, after more research at around point G of their journey, they found out someone else had already been to that planet and built a chain of Howard Johnson’s on it that were doing quite poorly. Lesson well learned.

Superhero 101: Eight secrets to delegating more effectively

Telling a manager they need to delegate more is often like telling a superhero they need to set aside their vast powers and watch their employees do the world saving: “Did you save the world like I asked you too? No? You said you would get that done by Tuesday…”

The executive overlord gets frustrated because she’s tired of hearing the superhero manager say he’s too busy. “Just delegate more and follow up!” shouts the overlord.

The superhero gets defensive and walks out of the meeting with his cape in a bunch because no one saves the world like he does. In fact, the last time he delegated saving the world, his underling was content to stop an evil genius by just freezing his assets. The superhero manager knows you must always confront the evil genius face to face in the depths of the evil lair. This attention to detail is what got the superhero the manager job in the first place.

What the superhero manager AND the executive overlord must realize though is that delegating is not just a matter of getting better at assigning work and following up, it’s a matter of building the right team to delegate to, then going through the gut wrenching process of giving up tasks and control for the purpose of getting bigger picture items done. It’s a matter of hanging up the cape and donning a pair of chinos.

Fortunately here’s a step by step process to help you through it, custom made for superheroes:

1. Scope of responsibility – Every department, division, or business unit has a scope of responsibility. This is the total workload of that area. What’s most important, before considering additional delegation, is that the scope of responsibility is executed successfully. If, temporarily because of resource constraints, that gets done by a manager flying around like a hyperactive overcaffeinated supermanager, so be it. That’s not ideal, but priority one is to execute on the scope of responsibility.

2. It’s not just saving the world – But hold on there manager of steel, your scope of responsibility has many facets, not just saving the world. There’s also rescuing cats from trees, or helping senior citizens cross the street. In all the frantic flying around, are you getting just the urgent world saving tasks done and neglecting other duties? If so, then delegate these lesser tasks to your budding superheroes. They will do them as if they were saving the world.

3. Even saving the world is a team effort – Everyone wants to focus on the evil genius confrontation part of the world saving, but what about logistics, costume repair, and things like busting down doors of evil genius lairs? Everyone has a number of little specialties. Don’t get so caught up in the end result that you forget to work on the less dramatic but just as important interim parts of world saving. Assign those tasks to others, and save the world as a team.

4. Skills and preference – You want to still be a manager/doer. That’s fine. When you delegate, try to maximize people’s skills and indulge preferences, including your own. Maybe, for example, you can still fly faster than anyone else. Great, so long distance world saving is your bailiwick. But long distance world saving only happens ten percent of the time. Delegate local world saving to others, so they can exercise their talents and develop new skills.

5. Delegate communication and process – You may get caught in this trap, “We are a bunch of superheroes; we don’t need processes. We just use our super powers and figure stuff out.” That may be how you operate, but the rest of the team wants a little bit of structure. If it’s not your thing, simply delegate the process and ongoing communication to someone who likes it. Maybe promote a team leader who schedules heroic events for people requesting superhero assistance. Someone will rise up and fly with it, and you’ll get it out of your super hair.

6. Hire other superheroes – Always look to hire other superheroes that are either more skilled than you at your specific talents or have a different talent. These people won’t let you get away with not delegating. They will pull tasks from you so they can exercise their talents. For example, you may want someone who can fly faster than you AND freeze things with her mind. That way, you can take vacation and if an evil genius tries to import weaponized newtonium by ship, you have someone who can instantly freeze the harbor with thought power.

7. Think about your overlord – Your overlord may be a former superhero, current desk jockey who keeps telling you to delegate more. One day try flipping the script on them and ask what more they could delegate to you. You’ve already done steps 1 through 6 above. What can you now do to help your overlord move up and become a grand overlord (or pursue whatever career paths superhero overlords pursue)?

8. Delegate for higher purpose – In the end, what’s the purpose of delegation? It’s a way to raise everyone’s level. The world saving will still happen, but instead of it being done just by you, your team is now doing it and improving their skills along the way. At the same time you can now use some of your other vast talents to build a new worldwide superhero consortium or start a superhero training center like you always wanted to do.

The purpose of delegation is to maximize productivity, get more done consistently, and raise everyone’s level. If you do this, you will transform from a super manager to a super leader. And every once in a while, if you feel the need, you can still put your cape back on and take out an evil genius. That is, if you can still fit in your tights.

By Aaron Cargas